Frederick County Public Schools will reopen under a full virtual mode for the 2020-2021 school year.
The Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday for the first semester of the school year to be conducted virtually with the caveat that specific, targeted groups of students would be brought in occasionally for face-to-face instruction. The board also voted to suspend fall sports in hopes that fall teams could have a shortened season.
The specific groups of students would most likely be marginalized populations such as Special Education students and English Language (EL) students whose academic success might
be seriously challenged by a lack of in-person instruction.
Each board member expressed both support of opening virtually and concern of how such a reopening would affect specific students.
“I’m in favor of exploring some creative options and solutions for us to open some buildings for a select group of students...really prioritizing our students with [Individualized Education Plans] and our English Language learners,” board member Rae Gallagher said.
Besides Special Education students and EL students, the question now becomes who else the Board will determine as in need of face-to-face instruction.
Members floated different ideas such as students under the age of 10, students who are transitioning such as Kindergartners, sixth graders and ninth graders, and students who are enrolled in courses at the Career and Technology Center. Board President Brad Young also brought up the idea of students who were included in the redistricting process from last year and were slated to attend a new school.
“If we can find those opportunities to make [students] feel comfortable and know a little bit more about their school then we should explore them,” Young said.
The question of who the Board and school system chooses to bring into buildings is likely to play out over the next week. Board member Michael Bunitsky asked if there is an ethical dilemma in bringing in these students over others.
“We’re going to get criticized for bringing in groups of kids...are we sacrificing those kids over other students? That’s a conundrum that we’re going to have to deal with,” Bunitsky said.
Board Vice President Jay Mason also brought up the idea of minority students, especially Black males, who don’t have IEPs or other documented needs but are known to need extra help, based on achievement gap data.
“Who do we prioritize? There are a lot of students out here who need help,” Mason said. “I choose the virtual model but I think we’re going to leave out a lot of students and I’m fearful that a lot of the Black students will be left out.”
The decision to reopen virtually came after a two-hour discussion by the board during which members also heard from Dr. Barbara Brookmyer, the county’s chief health officer. Brookmyer gave an in-depth presentation about COVID-19, how it spreads, and data showing how the county is faring in terms of battling the virus. She made it clear that she does not think the virus will disappear on its own.
She also answered questions from Board members related to contact tracing among students, air filtration in buildings, and the safety of outdoor activities.
Bringing students together, in almost every fashion, comes with a risk she said. The decision to reopen in a full virtual mode comes after the school system struggled to provide distance learning in the Spring when schools initially shut down. Parents, students, and teachers all expressed criticism over how the school year ended.
However, board members seemed confident Wednesday that this upcoming virtual semester would operate more efficiently and effectively.
“What we did in March in going to virtual learning was emergency and I think that there has been time for learning and for improvement,” board member Lois Jarman said. Now that the board has made a final decision, a report will be sent to the Maryland State Department of Education and FCPS will begin putting in place methods and resources for the virtual start. The board is also expected to dive into a deeper discussion on which students should be brought into buildings at their next meeting on August 5.